Project management is the design and application of structure. Planning, scheduling, monitoring, tracking – the language of the field implies systematicity and a degree of rigidity. And project managers tend to be left brain thinkers who thrive on organization, structure, and discipline. So where does innovation, the creative generation and implementation of new ideas, fit into such a rigidly structured field and practice?
From Idea to Implementation
Innovation and creativity are interrelated, but creativity is the ability to generate new ideas, while innovation denotes the capability to transform an idea into working practical reality. It is relatively easy to produce any number of new ideas. Taking an idea and implementing it in a way that adds value to a process or organization is a different matter, particularly in a realm like project management, where structure is at once an indispensable support and a binding constraint.
In fact, the ability to innovate has always been a core competency of the effective project manager. A traditional project management paradigm places the execution of clearly defined deliverables – products and services – as the primary objective. Innovation generally appears in reaction to risk, when problems need to be solved. The project manager must respond by generating ideas and implementing them in the form of a risk response and contingency plan.
Modern project management models often prioritize the achievement of results as a contribution to the business strategy of an organization. For example, a project manager may be charged with developing a plan that will result in a 20% increase in sales over a 12-month period. In a case like this, innovation becomes a central feature throughout the project life cycle as the manager seeks and implements ideas to support achievement of the desired result.
Barriers to Innovation
Although innovation is often critical to successful project outcomes, a number of obstacles may prevent managers from developing and applying their ability to innovate.
Low risk tolerance: Project managers often work for risk-averse organizations. Best practice and adherence to established and often rigid methodology are seen as ways to reduce risk and thus valued above new ideas and innovation.
Lack of capability: The tools and processes required for effective innovation are not known or are misunderstood by most organizations. Moreover, when innovation is not supported by an organization, the requisite skills will not develop.
Lack of time: Most project managers are pressed for time. Innovative thinking and problem solving takes time, but project managers spend up to 90% of their time in communication with others and rushing to respond to problems.
Overcoming the Obstacles
The starting point of innovation is an ability to question the status quo. Find a strategy that supports oversight but does not stifle creativity. Get around risk aversion by piloting new ideas in controlled, low-risk situations. Leverage collaboration by engaging the entire team in the project planning process from the beginning and being genuinely open to ideas and suggestions.
Finally, don’t be afraid to adopt the latest project planning tools and use management methodologies that may not be standard in your industry. It takes some creative thinking to find it, but there is space for innovation in modern project management.